I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea of role models. When you’re growing up you get asked a lot about yours. They want names, and if you don’t have any you’re basically a feckless little renegade operating in an ideological vacuum, unnerving to even the most self assured adult. I’ve seen teachers and parents press squirming children for replies, as if the failure to come up with a name is a moral one. I’ve seen children deflate as their answers don’t land, met with terse disapproval or nervous laughter. No child should be cornered this way, forced to rise to adult expectations that early. Phrased differently the question still remains an unfair one- What do you want to be when you grow up? It is ‘one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child’, says Michelle Obama in her excellent book, Becoming. ‘I was going to be a paediatrician,’ she writes, because ‘I quickly learned that it was a pleasing answer for adults to hear.’ It is stupid to ask it of a child, she says, because becoming is a continuous process and there is no singular, grand, final goal. ‘As if growing up is finite.’ she vents. ‘As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.’ She puts the notion to rest with a list of milestones that shaped her person. Becoming a lawyer. VP at a hospital. Director of a non profit that helps young adults build meaningful careers. A working class black student at a posh white college. The only woman, the only African American woman, in all sorts of rooms. A bride, a mother, a daughter grieving her father’s death. The FLOTUS.
So are role models completely useless? One could argue that they are replacement- parents and guides that help us navigate adulthood, teaching by example, pointing us in surprising and inspiring directions, playing mentors-in-absentia, imaginary best friend, the voice in your head. When I first started writing about fashion, I’d ask myself What would Anna Wintour think? There is merit in curating your inspiration, shaping your life around goals you admire. But it can tip over into worship. Popular culture conflates worth with celebrity. To a lot of young people today, you’re not a good role model if you’re not famous- social media famous, frenzied paparazzi famous, money famous. The dismantling of beloved icons like Michael Jackson- decades too late- has laid bare our worst groupie impulses.
My other problem with society- certified role models is that they are overwhelmingly male, mostly dead, and thus framed as unimpeachable, aggravatingly so. Let’s pick three popular names, old- timey people who were and still are believed to be the best at what they did, mythologized beyond recognition. Charles Dickens, Victorian novelist and sublime chronicler of the industrial age is seldom called out for his misogyny. In Dickens’s Women, writer Miriam Margolyes is clearly conflicted in her appraisal of this man who called his wife Catherine ‘as near being a donkey as one of her sex can be.’ His infatuation with teenage girls, his vicious treatment of the women in his life and the mental abuse they suffered at his hands are conveniently sidestepped in readings of his work. Albert Einstein, god and muse to every acne- studded teen scientist in the world was a shitty husband and consummate asshole. Among the other crimes he was never officially called out for- like casteism- Gandhi’s horrifying obsession with sex and women’s bodies manifested as widely documented perversions; his aides looked the other way as he subjected the women in his life to unspeakable atrocities.
It also seems to me that women are pushed into adopting female role models much more aggressively than men are into adopting theirs. If you were a little girl in the late 90’s and didn’t have astronaut Kalpana Chawla, police officer Kiran Bedi or Man Booker winner Arundhati Roy shoved in your face at least once, did you even exist? Little boys and young men face nowhere near this sort of pressure to prove their capabilities; it’s because their worth isn’t contingent on glory- getting. Across the world exasperated, indulgent mothers of male children go Boys. What can you do?! even as they hold their female children to far more exacting standards. I believe there is enough and more room for male ordinariness, but little tolerance for female ordinariness. Thus, the success of female icons is selectively interpreted; ordinary women are burdened with replicating their magnificence if only to prove to their caregivers that they’re worth the love, respect and investment. Meanwhile those burdening us refuse to acknowledge how a hostile patriarchy stymies us at every step, or indeed review their own complicity in our failures. In Emma Cline’s breakout 2016 novel The Girls, a character hits it right on the head- ‘All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you- the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.’
The heroines in Penelope Bagieu’s Brazen- Rebel Ladies Who Rocked The World do just that- become. They spend their lives striving to be so comfortable in their skin they become the best versions of themselves. Their success is not textbook, not quantifiable, not the kind of success that lends itself easily to film adaptations or punchy headlines. A lot of it isn’t the sort of success we set such great store by. No. This is a success so out of character for its milieu, or marked by so many setbacks and so much heartbreak it’s more struggle than success and may well not have acknowledged as such in its time. It is the sort of success authority figures and polite society bristle at, warn their children against. Respectability was no consideration for these women; their lives were all heart and good sense even if it got them into trouble. In the glut of feminist easy- reads in the market- many lavishly illustrated but low on substance or imagination- Bagieu’s book stands out for its selection of names, drawn by casting such a wide net across eras and geographies and cultures that there are women here you definitely haven’t heard of, women who are no less deserving for it. Among the brief bios listed against each name in the index, my favorites are Obstinate Lover and Reluctant Celebrity. Her beautiful art and clever storytelling deserve as much praise as her criteria for inclusion. In her landmark book of essays Men Explain Things To Me writer Rebecca Solnit makes a passionate and patently logical argument for evaluating things- people, intentions, outcomes- differently. ‘My own task these past twenty years or so of living by words has been to try to find or make a language to describe the subtleties, the incalculables, the pleasures and meanings—impossible to categorize—at the heart of things. My friend Chip Ward speaks of “the tyranny of the quantifiable,” of the way what can be measured almost always takes precedence over what cannot: private profit over public good; speed and efficiency over enjoyment and quality; the utilitarian over the mysteries and meanings that are of greater use to our survival and to more than our survival, to lives that have some purpose and value that survive beyond us to make a civilization worth having. The tyranny of the quantifiable is partly the failure of language and discourse to describe more complex, subtle, and fluid phenomena, as well as the failure of those who shape opinions and make decisions to understand and value these slipperier things. It is difficult, sometimes even impossible, to value what cannot be named or described, and so the task of naming and describing is an essential one in any revolt against the status quo of capitalism and consumerism. Ultimately the destruction of the Earth is due in part, perhaps in large part, to a failure of the imagination or to its eclipse by systems of accounting that can’t count what matters.’ Brazen is a quietly brilliant attempt at counting what matters, and making it count.